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Is Washington becoming ‘happy with crappy?’

Boeing's 787 Credit: Boeing Company

I ran into James Fallows who was in town promoting his fascinating new book, China Airborne, which looks at the future of that country's economic transformation through the lens of its ambitions to be a major player in aerospace. Can China do what it has done in general manufacturing in the realm of Boeing, Airbus, and NASA?

I mentioned to Fallows what a European official had told me in Shanghai at the close of the world expo there in 2010. After living in Shanghai for two years as commissioner of a major pavilion and seeing what they could do, he said his impression was the Chinese do everything to a 95% standard. They don't seek perfection, they just build something's that's good enough. "I wouldn't want to ride on an airliner or space shuttle they'd built," he told me.

Fallows said there's a saying about that: "Happy with crappy."

He doesn't use that phrase in his new book, but he describes the phenomenon. The growth and infrastructure spurt in China, the rapid industrialization and urbanization, is remarkable, but how lasting is it?

"It's true," he writes, "that buildings and facilities tend to age quickly in China, because of pollution and, sometimes, shortcuts in construction standards." Fallows writes that while living there he often saw aging buildings he assumed were built in the 1960s only to find they were constructed four or five years before. They'd appeared to have aged 40 years in less than a decade. Sounds like those meth addict mug shots you see online.

He cited the Rem Koolhaas CCTV tower built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which he says has "harshly weathered" and looks like its been there for years. Contrast that with the Space Needle which, at 50, is still looking fresh in skies much cleaner than they were forty years ago.

A high speed rail crash in China last year, and the Sichuan earthquake which brought down poorly constructed schools, Fallows writes, are highly publicized examples that have contributed to the image of slap-dash construction.

It's not true of everything, and much of China's infrastructure is newer than ours, he observes, very noticeable on new and lightly trafficked freeways. In America, the challenge is updating and renewing the old, as evidenced here in Seattle by the 520 and South Park bridge replacements, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct removal.

If China has been sloppy in its build-up phase, are we doing better in meeting or exceeding the standards of American engineers and builders who created so much of the infrastructure we still rely on? You see a lot of failing Seattle streets with patchwork repairs (if they're lucky). At the turn of the century, concrete was poured that has lasted a century. Compare the construction of a 1920s bungalow with the particle board of a 2001 condo. Are we building stuff nowadays that will last a century or longer?

Or are we becoming "happy with crappy?"

Recent headlines make you wonder.

We're undertaking the multi-billion-dollar replacement of the 520 bridge which has rapidly aged, in part, due to more use than was originally projected. But inspectors have already found major problems with the replacement bridge's new pontoons which are supposed to keep it floating. Cracks and not enough re-bar reinforcement seem to be the problems.

Earlier this year, a monkey wrench was thrown in the massive Columbia Crossing bridge project over the Columbia River when the Coast Guard raised objections to the bridge's height. Way late in the project we've discovered that the bridge is too low for some river navigation. Raising it will require major reworking of the project. Might be cheaper just to write a lyric about it, like in the old Erie Canal folk song: "Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,/Low bridge for we're com-in to a town …"

There have also been problems with the newest state ferries, which, though small, became the most expensive boats the state ferry system has ever built. And once launched, the public learned that they list to one side because of their asymmetrical design. The ferry system insists that this was on purpose, but riding the Chetzemoka you get the sense from its odd proportions that it was made by someone who didn't ride ferries regularly and conceived it on a computer screen. The ferries in this class have been dubbed "I-Lean."

Many attribute Mayor Greg Nickels loss for re-election in 2009 to his not getting the streets plowed during a snowstorm, but other Seattle Department of Transportation problems contributed to the sense that Seattle wasn't working as it should, including curbs that weren't set straight, crosswalks that had to be redone numerous times, and a wheelchair ramp to nowhere.

Even in the aerospace sector in which Seattle, and therefore the USA, dominates there has been troubling news, especially with the 787 manufacturing process where too much was out-sourced and not enough parts fit together right. The plane of the future seems to be plagued with endless work-around solutions. With the 787, Boeing seemed to take a known way of making the best planes in the world and deliberately break that process. In his book, Fallows quotes an industry analyst saying the 787 method was a "big, dumb, costly mistake." Boeing itself has said it will never do that again. Ironically, the way Boeing usually makes planes is what gives it, in Fallows' estimation, much of our edge over Chinese ambitions: a long track record, a culture of safety, in-house know-how.

You might get away with "happy with crappy" for ferry boats, but it won't work for airliners. As Fallows points out, beyond the technology, being a major player in aerospace requires an enormous infrastructure and culture that keeps planes in the air, from weather reports to pilot training to air traffic control to communications systems to public civilian airspace (China's is nearly all controlled by the military). But there are alarms here for the us in the erosion of our system. KIRO-TV's reports on the outsourcing of airline maintenance and repair to places like El Salvador and, yes, China, raise concerns.

We can't allow too much "happy with crappy" creep into the global supply and maintenance chain, but we also have to guard against it on the home front, especially under budget pressures and shovel-ready eagerness to "create jobs." There are major engineering feats taking place right now, including under our feet (the light rail tunnel through Capitol Hill), and so far, I know of no new Galloping Gerties in the offing.

One thing I ran across in research the Space Needle history was that 50 years ago, structural engineers as a general rule did not carry liability insurance. Above and beyond pride, reputation and human concern, they had an incentive to make sure whatever they built didn't fall down, and there was a tendency to over-design for safety. A small investment in additional concrete can sometimes make a big difference.

We ought to strive for infrastructure that is well designed and can be handed down from generation to generation, adapted and reused as needed rather than dumped prematurely in landfill to be replaced by ever-diminishing sources of supply. It's not as catchy as "happy with crappy," but "content with permanent" is a better building philosophy.

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